What’s wrong with favelas?

I first became aware of the word “favela” when I was 12 or 13 – we watched a video in geography class about São Paulo. I don’t remember much about the video itself, but the word stuck in my head and 20 (ish) years later I find myself living right next to one.

Favelas are one of the most prickly subjects in Brazil. Get into a conversation about favelas with a middle class Brazilian and there is a good chance that you will find yourself in trouble before long. I once mentioned to a friend of a friend that Vidigal looked beautiful at night. He responded “Favelas are ugly. You think it is romantic to live without proper sanitation?”.

Vidigal favela at sunset

Vidigal (a favela next to wealthy Leblon) lights up as darkness falls.


Some Brazilians are convinced that most people living in favelas are drug dealers or thieves. One of my ex-Portuguese teachers once told me “They’re not all thieves. But you should not go in. You will be robbed.” She went on to say that she had never been inside a favela herself and never would because they are “too dangerous”. What followed was a very strange conversation in which we ended up having a Pygmalion-style argument about whether people are born bad or are simply influenced by their environment.


Favela Tours and the influence of foreigners

Favela tours always seemed like a positive thing to me. If done well they bring money into local businesses and help people from the outside to better understand what favela life is really like (including dispelling fears based on ignorance – see previous paragraph). But not everyone likes them – I once heard someone say “I hate those favela tours. The tourists think they’re going to the zoo, but these are people, not animals.”

And on the relatively recent surge of foreigners living in favelas, there are several complaints you hear: 1) Gringos come to live in a favela for a week or two so they can have a story to tell their friends when they get home. 2) Now that they’re safe, foreigners are coming in and pushing up the prices which is pushing out the original residents. 3) Living in a favela legitimises it, these are illegal settlements that the government should abolish.

I do think that some of these points have validity, but I can’t help feeling that you can’t win sometimes – whatever you say or do in favelas, someone seems to have a problem with it.


Vidigal up close

Vidigal up close. The reality of living in a favela involves having very little privacy and in many cases suffering problems with sanitation, pests and crime.


The fact of the matter is that favelas are a source of shame for many Brazilians and that is why it is such a sensitive topic. These communities are a constant reminder of the fact that the state effectively abandoned a large section of society for many years. For many people, favelas also have a strong association with crime and lack of state control – clearly not things that anyone would want associated with their country. I can see that it must be very frustrating to have tourists show up and think these places are exciting or somehow fun. But at the same time, I think it is natural that visitors are fascinated by these unconventional communities.


Santa Marta favela, Rio

These brightly coloured houses can be seen in Santa Marta, a favela in Botafogo.


The problem with favelas

Favelas have a lot of serious problems – crime, lack of infrastructure, education, public health – these are not idyllic communities.

Santo Amaro crack users

The Santa Amaro favela was well known as having large numbers of crack dealers and users. Crack addicts are one of the most depressing sights I’ve ever seen. This area, just outside the favela walls, was cleared earlier this year, but moving addicts is far easier than dealing with the root cause of the addition.


So favelas have many problems – but does that mean they are 100% bad? I don’t think so. Even during the limited time I’ve spent in Rio, I’ve met many fine and talented people who were born and raised in favelas – I’ve eaten in great restaurants and had many positive interactions. Like many poor communities, favelas have a strong sense of community and are culturally rich (even if not everyone, including me, appreciates every aspect of that culture!).

So, are there reasons to be cautiously optimistic with regard to the future of favelas? I’ve heard people dismiss the success of the UPPs (Rio’s pacified favelas) as being a temporary change that will fall apart after the World Cup and Olympic games. It’s true that there are just 28 UPPs out of Rio’s 500-800 favelas, (estimates vary), but I think they do offer a model that is working. If the state can continue to take control of, and responsibility for, these troubled communities, then perhaps they can cease to be such a prickly subject in future.

What do you think of favelas? If you’ve been into one, how did it go?

Vidigal to Ipanema

Looking from Vidigal to Ipanema.


Note: The accepted/politically correct term for favelas is comunidade. For the sake of not distracting from the subject, I stuck with favelas today but will be covering this issue of nomenclature soon. Apologies if repeated use of the F-word offended anyone!


21 replies
  1. Luciana Lage
    Luciana Lage says:

    Great article, Tom. Favelas are a part of the Brazilian scenery and are present in social, economical, and political discussions. Yes, those are real people in need of real opportunities. Adam Lee, author of Eyes on Brazil and contributor to Street Smart Brazil has lived in a couple of favelas in Rio. He wrote three articles about his experience for the Street Smart Brazil blog.

    Besides the curiosity to tour a favela, many people also have the generosity to help them. Most of those kids just need a hand to help them find new, better paths in life. There is an abundance of inspiring stories. Here are some great projects (some of the videos are in Portuguese):

    Projeto Fight for Peace:

    Projeto Favela Mundo:

    Música Clássica na Favela:

    Projeto Cine Favela:

    • tomlemes
      tomlemes says:

      Thanks Luciana, great links! I completely neglected to mention the many projects setup to help with development in favelas. I remember hearing the story of the Luta Pela Paz guy. Schemes that help channel kids’ energies in a positive, constructive way are great aren’t they?

      Interestingly, even schemes like this are controversial to some. I know at least one person who is ‘anti’ the NGOs because they feel that they are doing the work that is the responsibility of the government. I understand this thinking, but I think if we sat back and left everything to government we’d get nowhere. So many worthwhile schemes and movements have been created and driven by individuals and small groups who decide to do something independently of government – it seems crazy to write them off like that.

  2. The Gritty Poet
    The Gritty Poet says:

    I also get the impression that the favela subject is troublesome for many Brazilians because it sheds light on how poor this country still is in so many aspects. People are embarrased I guess. It is like speaking of mass Italian immigration when in Italy: there is still a lingering shame since it reminds the locals that their country was so miserable that most of its population just got up and left. The same phenomenom is happening now in nations like Spain whose inhabitants don’t want to hear that their countrymen are once again moving to places like Switzerland and Germany out of plain necessity. Poverty just bugs people; but ignoring it or getting upset everytime it is mentioned certainly isn’t the answer. Plus, albeit there still being so much to do things are in fact improving for the most part, and we should all rejoice because of that.

    • tomlemes
      tomlemes says:

      I’m sure you’re right – many Brazilians are (rightly) proud of the many positive aspects of Brazil. It’s not nice to have people from outside start pointing at the negative aspects.

      Yes, I’m really pleased about the improvements, but there’s a ridiculously long way still to go isn’t there? I really hope the positive change continues (and accelerates!).

      • The Gritty Poet
        The Gritty Poet says:

        “Yes, I’m really pleased about the improvements, but there’s a ridiculously long way still to go isn’t there? I really hope the positive change continues (and accelerates!).”

        Certainly: It is much easier to celebrate improvements when what is still lacking does not affect us; yet there is something to be said for things getting better.

    • Cesar
      Cesar says:

      “I also get the impression that the favela subject is troublesome for many Brazilians because it sheds light on how poor this country still is in so many aspects. People are embarrased I guess.”

      I agree with your comment, but i think is important to highlight some things that all of us already know but end up forgetting. Although the favela not only denounces the poverty that still plague a large part of the population, but also highlight the failure of the government in effectively deal with it – at least until recently – i think it isn’t exactly what make the brazilian upper classes cringe when they think about those communities. I guess that the old habit of blame the poor by their own poverty play a more important role than we usually like to admit.

      The favela is historically associated with the degradation of everything that a ‘good citizen’ like, and this isn’t a secret. In a speech back in the ’30, when the governor of Pernambuco State Agamaenon Magalhães started to demolish the mucambos of Recife, he stated that their inhabitants were “intoxicated” – and explained: not only biological intoxicated by the poor sanitary conditions were their live, but also morally intoxicated; those who live in the mucambos were, in his words, plague by vices – laziness, alcoholism, disregard for the law, etc and endangered the order; therefore, they were a obstacle to the ‘social and economical progress of the nation’ – a common phrase during the Estado Novo era. Those mucambos were morally infected, a source of corruption that could ruin the good brazilian society. Later he celebrated in Folha da Manhã newspaper, saying that the government estimate that almost 20.000 people from mucambos have left the city after the slums were destroyed.

      Although the more radical opinions, as those of Agamenon, aren’t too much common anymore, i think their echoes persist, and can be heard in the approach of contemporary upper class brazillians to the favelas.

      All that boils down to what we already know: usually people don’t see the favelas and mucambos – and poverty in general – as a symptom of a problem (in this case, the social e economical exclusion of a huge part of Brazilian society), but as a problem in itself – source of danger to the good folks that don’t live there, their aspirations and their way of life. In other words, they don’t feel embarrassed because the existence of those communities denounces the social and economical problems of the nation; they feel embarrassed because those communities exist, and everyone is seeing them – and i think it is a big difference.

      When you sum up this and the idealization of occidental europe imagery as the embodiment of what it’s desirable in almost every sense of the word, especially for the brazilian upper classes, is easy to understand the distress of that social segment when those communities – and/or anything related to them – get the attention of white foreigners. It’s almost Freudian.

      • tomlemes
        tomlemes says:

        Great comment Cesar! This is exactly what I experienced in that conversation with my ex-Portuguese teacher. She basically said the favela residents “lived like pigs”, throwing rubbish on the ground and not taking pride in their surroundings. I responded that it was a matter of education. If you took the children of a rich Ipanema resident (or from anywhere else), and brought them up in a favela, they’d be just the same. And of course, if you took children from a favela and brought them up in say, Sweden then they’d grow up to be very environmentally conscious. She ended up basically saying “No, they’re just bad people”!

        I was quite shocked – they’re just bad people? I think this is a very strange and negative way of looking at the world.

  3. scott
    scott says:

    if you think that there is anything romantic about living in a favela then you are wrong. Some favelas are worse than others. Most are just where soem Brazilians live.

    I now live in what my wife describes as a semi-favela… it is, at the end of the day, just a place where lworking class people live….

    I will never understand all this gringo middle class curiosity and fasination with favelas … yes it is dangerous and yes you can be robbed… but 99% of the people are just normal working class folk…

    For me the biggest thieves in Brazil are the politicians and the utility companies, the helath care plans, the bus company oweners and globo basically – the upper class and upper middle class apartment dwellers…

    • tomlemes
      tomlemes says:

      Hi Scott! Thanks for your comment – I think you were that guy I quoted in the 2nd paragraph! 😉

      Seriously though, did you read the whole post? You think I find crime, drugs and bad sanitation romantic? I have no desire to live in a favela. But I do think that if everyone spent a couple of weeks in a favela then perhaps we’d all have better understanding of what a favela is, the good points (not everyone who lives in a favela is a criminal) and the bad points too (mentioned already).

      Mutual understanding and cultural exchange is important. It is easy for the rich Carioca who lives in Ipanema to say things like “all favelados are lazy criminals” if they have never been into a favela. But if they actually went into a favala then perhaps they would understand that, like you say, these are just the homes of normal, working class people.

      The gringo fascination comes from the fact that we don’t have huge hills of housing run by gun-toting drug lords where we come from. Of course that is a caricature – not all favelas are like that, but when I first got to Rio, my mother-in-law drove me through Rocinha and I saw 16 year old kids walking around with machine guns in broad daylight. Why wouldn’t we be fascinated by this? Questions that instantly jumped into my head were:

      Do the police have to ask permission to go in?
      How do people buy and sell housing?
      Where are all the guns coming from?
      Can just anyone go in and build another house on top?
      How dangerous is it?
      If the police don’t have jurisdiction then how are disputes settled?

      The list goes on – people are fascinated because favelas are pretty unusual by first world standards. That doesn’t mean we think they’re romantic, but it does mean we have a lot of questions. 🙂

  4. Ana Fonseca
    Ana Fonseca says:

    The first time my parent is law were planning to visit Rio, I started discussing with them what to visit. While I was giving some suggestions my mother in law just rolled her eyes up and interrupted me: “I am not interested in that. I want to see where the REAL people live.” I was puzzeld. “What do you mean… real ?”. “I want to go to a favela. Wher the real Brazilians are.” I had to be rude: “Great ! But you go alone”.
    I mean: there is poverty, big poverty in Holland as well. Locked. Hidden behind the doors. For example, vast areas of Amsterdam North (behind the Centraal Station) are very sad with endless row houses (actually endless walls with a dor and a windos, a door and a window, another door and a window, hundreds of times). Or huge vertical gettos near Boven IJ hospital. Lanes and lanes and lanes of scary gettos. Or Poelenburg in Zaandam. I pass by these three locations everyday to go to work, so sad and creepy. Would it be a good idea Brazilians visiting Holland have a tour into these homes ? How educational, how exciting it would be !

    • tomlemes
      tomlemes says:

      Hi Ana, it’s an interesting point. I’ve told people that we have poverty in the UK too and often the reply is “You don’t have poverty like we have in Brazil. It’s far easier there.” That response makes me think: “Try telling a malnourished 8 year old kid growing up in a housing estate in the UK that he’s got it easy” Or how about the thousands of old people who die of hypothermia every winter because they can’t afford to heat their homes? I’m not saying things are the same between the two countries (or even close), but Europe does has poverty too.

      Regarding your last sentence, I don’t know about your experience, but when I’ve been into (UPP) favelas I’ve felt comfortable and relatively safe (far safer than in Lapa for example). People have mostly ignored me – no drama. But when I’ve been into bad neighbourhoods in London I’ve just felt very scared and threatened – the only people who dare leave their houses after dark (16:00 in winter) are the gangs of teenage kids who terrorise the neighbourhood.

      The point of visiting a favela is not to visit poverty – I don’t think anyone wants to go take a tour of cracolândia. When I wandered into Cantagalo with my wife, we asked a kid for directions. He didn’t seem to have much to do and ended up showing us around a bit and I’m sorry, but it was interesting! There were parts that weren’t very nice, but there were also some surprises – a learning areas with computers, a function space for wedding parties, various other facilities. The atmosphere was either neutral or positive and there was a very strong sense of community spirit – very different to the atmosphere in the really bad places I know in London where community spirit has been destroyed.

      I’m not saying favelas are fun or easy places to live, but I am saying that at least some of them are interesting to an outsider.

  5. Alessandra
    Alessandra says:

    I spend 4 days in Vidigal with friends in a hostel and confess: was AMAZING!! Was a great experience for us.

  6. BrazilianSoul
    BrazilianSoul says:

    Great post, Tom.

    But I think that there is another component behind all this that you might have missed, something known as schadenfreude. There are people from other countries who visit Brazilian slums to feel good about their home countries’ current situation.

    I mean, they obviously have their own ghettos that they desperately want to hide, but they feel glad that their ghettos don’t look like Vidigal. Our slums have a weird esthetic appeal.
    A couple weeks ago I read about Polish tourists visiting Rio’s slums. Poland is poorer than Brazil. Two decades ago they were starving behind the iron curtain, and yet this same people want to visit Brazil’s slums, where every poor living there is obese and probably richer than the poorest Polish. It’s like rich Brazilian tourists visiting a poor area like Compton in the US and feeling some sort of relief about Brazil.

    Of course I’m not talking about you, because you are a nice guy who seems to be very curious about other cultures. But I think that there is a good portion of tourists (obviously not all) visiting the slums just to feel this weird schadenfreude. It must be our strange human nature…

    • tomlemes
      tomlemes says:

      Hi BrazilianSoul, that’s an interesting viewpoint. Maybe I am just thinking that everyone else is like me, but I just don’t believe that people go on holiday to relieve their feelings of national inferiority.

      If people followed your schadenfreude way of holidaying, then people from Brazil would holiday in Bolivia instead of Florida and New York, don’t you think? We’d all be trying to find somewhere lower down the ‘ladder of nations’ to visit!

      When people go on holiday I think they want to see how other people live. There are people somewhere in Asia who live exclusively on boats. This is a fascinating, not because they’re poor but because it’s another way of living.

      Please don’t think I’m being rude here, but I think your comment reveals something about the way some Brazilians think. Specifically this bit: “they obviously have their own ghettos that they desperately want to hide”.

      I think it is some Brazilians that would desperately like to hide the favelas – I don’t mean that you think that necessarily. It’s just interesting that you assume that people “obviously” want to hide their ghettos. The poverty that exists in Britain makes me sad and depressed sometimes, but I don’t want to pretend to visitors that it doesn’t exist.

      • BrazilianSoul
        BrazilianSoul says:

        “I think it is some Brazilians that would desperately like to hide the favelas. The poverty that exists in Britain makes me sad and depressed sometimes, but I don’t want to pretend to visitors that it doesn’t exist.”

        Well, I believe in you. But you won’t find many Europeans or Americans trying to take visitants to the poorest areas in their countries… What is funny, because at the same time that they couldn’t care less to visit their own poor people, they like to visit where poor Brazilians live.

        My “schadendraude theory” might be not very solid, but it’s intriguing that tourists would make everything to avoid the ghettos close to their homes, but spend so much time visiting Brazilian ghettos. I understand that it might be “fascinating” to visit those places, but poor people are still poor people all around the world. I fail to see why a Brazilian slum would be so much more interesting than a poor Paki neighbourhood in Britain. Maybe because the huts all on hills here? Ok, I accept this reason.

        • tomlemes
          tomlemes says:

          Hmmm, I hear Brazilians make this comparison a lot: “I don’t see Americans/Europeans visiting their own poor areas”. I think part of the explanation is simple novelty vs familiarity – some of the things that you grew up with and therefore find boring or even distasteful, I might find interesting because I’ve never seen it before.

          But also, as I said to Ana, people aren’t going to favelas to visit “poor areas”. This isn’t about looking at poor people. The people who live in favelas happen to be poor, but that isn’t the point of the visit. Tourists go to see a very unorthodox yet functioning (some cases better than others) community. And yes, also the hills! 😉

          I would argue that the bad housing estates in Britain’s large cities have better infrastructure (sewage works, garbage removal, etc), but are functioning far worse in terms of community than the UPP favelas that I’ve visited in Rio.

  7. Claire
    Claire says:

    People are the ANIMAL ‘homosapien’. Animals do not belong in zoos. I hate the way people are always making ignorant statements like that. Disassociation does wonders.

    • tomlemes
      tomlemes says:

      You know I’m still trying to work out what your point was there Claire. Are you just anti-zoos and decided this was the place to say it? Also, if you’re going bring out the Latin binomial, let’s get it right. It is Homo sapiens (even in the singular).

  8. John
    John says:

    You forgot to mention that favelas are set in places unsuitable for living. Many are in hills top and in constant danger of falling apart due to land slide. Others are in places prone to floods. People need to live in proper places with sanitation and proper infrastructure. Many tourists sometimes are unable to see how hard it is for people to live in these places.

    • tomlemes
      tomlemes says:

      Hi John – I’m not sure I’d wholly agree with you there. For sure there are plenty of instances where the buildings in some or all of a favela are situated in places “unsuitable for living” (the danger being floods, landslides, falling rocks, etc). But plenty of favela buildings are situated in prime locations (much of Vidigal would fit this example).

      It’s true that most favelas have serious infrastructure problems (sanitation, public transport, etc) but while tourists might not fully understand how difficult it is to live in a favela, they are more likely to get a good understanding if they actually go in and have a look around.


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